Herbal oils and vinegars are a creative way to use culinary herbs. Learning how to make them yourself is fun and satisfying. To help you get started, LoveToKnow recently spoke with Barbara Pleasant, author of The Whole Herb, about making herbal oils and vinegars.
Enjoy Making Herbal Oils and Vinegars
Why Make Your Own
LoveToKnow (LTK): What are the benefits of experimenting with herbal oils and vinegars in the kitchen?
Barbara Pleasant (BP): The two projects are very different in that herbal oil infusions are used medicinally while herbal vinegars are intended to delight the palate. You can make herbal oils for eating, but they carry a slight risk of botulism and therefore require very special handling.
Personally, I stick with the medicinal route with oils, for example making calendula oil for soothing chapped winter skin, or lemon balm oil to use for fever blisters and oral sores. Vinegar is almost as acidic as lemon juice, so it cannot support the growth of bacteria. For beginners, herbal vinegars are great because they are fast, easy and safe to make.
LTK: What makes oils and vinegars made at home better than store-bought versions?
BP: A good calendula or arnica cream isn't cheap, so making your own saves money. You also control the potency, because you will often mix your infused oil with cream, lotion or olive oil before rubbing it on your skin. In other words, you're making a concentrate, and a little will go a long way.
You can be endlessly creative when making herbal vinegars, which are so pretty that they make great gifts. For very little money, you can make beautiful, flavorful herbal vinegars that will last up to a year when kept in a cool, dark place.
LTK: Are they difficult to make?
BP: Herbal vinegars and oils are super-easy. The biggest challenge is making sure your steeping jars are clean, which you can do by warming them in a 200-degree oven after they have been thoroughly washed. You can use glass jars rescued from the recycling bin for steeping herbal oils or vinegars.
LTK: Is it best to use fresh or dried herbs?
BP: Fresh herbs are preferred for vinegars, but you will obtain a more concentrated medicinal oil by using dried ones. Dried herbs work better for flavored oils, too, because they don't introduce moisture, which can lead to spoilage.
LTK: Can you share the basic steps for making an herbal oil?
BP: A medicinal herbal oil begins with plenty of clean, dried herbs, for example dried calendula or arnica blossoms. When you have accumulated enough dried blossoms to fill a pint jar, you can start a batch of infused oil.
- Sterilize a new jar, and make sure it is thoroughly dry.
- Fill it with the dried herbs, stuffing them in with your fingers or a spoon if needed.
- Heat about 1-1/2 cups of vegetable oil to very warm and pour it into the jar of herbs; most people use olive, almond or safflower oil. Push herbs down with a wooden spoon if necessary.
- Screw on the lid, and place the oil infusion in a very warm place, such as a sunny windowsill.
- Shake every day, and then place the jar upside down.
- After one to two weeks, strain the oil through a coffee filter, and store the infused oil in a clean jar or bottle in a dark, cool cabinet.
LTK: How long do oils last?
BP: To make sure you have a potent preparation, it's best to make fresh batches of infused oils each summer.
LTK: Can you explain how to make herbal vinegars?
BP: I like to use rice vinegar, but you can start with any vinegar you like.
- Thoroughly clean about two cups of fresh herbs, for example basil, oregano or tarragon.
- Allow them to dry, or gently dry them with a hair dryer set on cool.
- Lightly crush the herbs with your hands, and place them in a clean jar.
- Cover with vinegar that has been warmed almost to a boil, screw on the lid, and shake. Place the jar in a cool, dark place.
- Shake every day, and then turn the jar upside down.
- After one to two weeks, strain the vinegar through a coffee filter, and pour into sterilized glass bottles. Place a sprig or two of fresh herbs in the bottle, and screw on the top or insert a tight cork.
LTK: How should vinegars be stored and how long are they good for?
BP: As long as herbal vinegars are protected from light, they will keep for up to a year. Vinegars displayed in a sunny windowsill look lovely, but they will not be as tasty or nutritious as those kept in the dark.
Using Oils and Vinegars
LTK: What are your favorite uses for herbal oils and vinegars?
BP: I like to make one small batch each of calendula and lemon balm infused oils each summer to have on hand for medicinal uses. A few drops of calendula oil will turn any lotion into a healing skin cream.
I use vinegars in the kitchen almost every day, and herbal vinegars are especially good for salad dressings and marinades. Basil vinegar made in summer and stashed in a dark cabinet seems like a miracle when it is opened in the middle of winter, because it captures some of basil's spicy floral fragrance.
LTK: Any other tips?
BP: As with all food preservation projects, remember that cleanliness is crucial. That said, you can have a lot of fun experimenting with herbal vinegars, which can quickly be rebottled when you need a last-minute gift. A friend who works at a restaurant saves me the small half-size wine bottles, called splits, which make great sharing-size bottles for herbal vinegars.
With medicinal infused oils, a skilled herbalist may spend an entire summer working with a batch, using the sun to warm up the jars daily. If you want to combine multiple herbs in a medicinal infused oil, it is better to infuse each herb separately, each in its own jar. Then you can combine them when you make your medicinal preparation. Medicinal infused oils meant to be used topically should never be swallowed, because they may contain compounds that cause liver damage.
Learn More About Using Herbs
If you'd like to learn more about using herbs, you'll find plenty of recipes, crafts and tips in The Whole Herb.
LoveToKnow would like to thank Barbara Pleasant for sharing her tips on making herbal oils and vinegars. You can learn more about Barbara by visiting her website, BarbaraPleasant.com.